The Victims

The Victims

When Mother divorced you, we were glad. She took it and
took it, in silence, all those years and then
kicked you out, suddenly, and her
kids loved it. Then you were fired, and we
grinned inside, the way people grinned when
Nixon's helicopter lifted off the South
Lawn for the last time. We were tickled
to think of your office taken away,
your secretaries taken away,
your lunches with three double bourbons,
your pencils, your reams of paper. Would they take your
suits back, too, those dark
carcasses hung in your closet, and the black
noses of your shoes with the large pores?
She had taught us to take it, to hate you and take it
until we pricked at your
annihilation, Father. Now I
pass bums in doorways, the white
slugs of their bodies gleaming through slits in their
suits of compressed silt, the stained
flippers of theur hands, the underwater
fire of their eyes, ships gone down with the
lanterns lit, and I wonder who took it and
took it from then in silence until they had
given it all away and had nothing
left but this.

Copyright Sharon Olds, from The Dead and The Living

When I think of the poems that hooked me into my poetic life, this one was monumental. Back in the late 80s (ugh), I took a creative writing class as an undergrad in college with Toi Dericotte. We hit it off, and I knew I had found my vocation.

The Victims by Sharon Olds is simply amazing.

“When Mother divorced you, we were glad.” Glad? Of course I had to read on. Divorce is difficult for all parties, but to gloat about it?

Great as the opening is, the following line I carry around like a jewel:

“Then you were fired, and we
grinned inside, the way people grinned when
Nixon's helicopter lifted off the South
Lawn for the last time."

Fired? Wait a minute. I can speak this way in a poem? I can fire my father? My lover? My boss? I can take the power back in our so-called relationship? Sharon pushes the envelope as she continues with the Nixon reference. I was born close enough to the Nixon era to understand how his his legacy of lies and deceit hurt this country. So to equate the father to a the ultimate father figure, a president, who left office in shame no less … brilliant.

So who are the victims in the poem? Not the speaker, or the family that “pricked at [your] annihilation” I think the errant fathers are the victims. They are the slugs, the loser dads who wouldn’t know kindness if it came up and gave them a hug. These men are not men. These men run from doing the real work of raising healthy, responsible kids. Maybe they valued work over family. Or alcohol over family. Or both. We all know lost souls like this. They cannot be saved. All we, as readers, are left with is this poem. Can we be saved or are we victims, too?

I love this poem because it is fierce in its steadfast and unflinching way it tells this story. I cherish it because it was given to me by my soon-to-be mentor. And I revel in it because I had the great privilege to study with the woman who wrote it.

Allen Ginesberg’s Howl made me take notice of poetry. But The Victims gave me the courage and the permission to say the unsayable.

(For more poems, visit Poetry Thursday.)


I love Sharon Olds' poetry! She gave a reading at the Scottish Poetry Library last week and was wonderful. This is a new poem to me though, thanks for sharing.
Kamsin said…
That is a really powerful poem, thanks for sharing it.
claireylove said…
This chokes, doesn't it?
The Dead and The Living really is the most amazing collection of poetry, really a book to aspire to.

It seems we have had a somewhat similar path in loving the sounds of poetry first and then being blown away at learning what you were able to say with it.

Poetry rocks! (especially the fierce kind ;-))
paris parfait said…
Yes, for all the reasons you've given, it is a powerful poem. Thanks for sharing it here.
Anonymous said…
great poem. thanks for bringing it to our attention.

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